Fishing town struggling in wake of tsunami

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By Matt Drange

California Watch

 It's been four months since tsunami waves generated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan ravaged the harbor in Northern California's Crescent City, destroying pilings and sinking 16 boats after ripping them from their docks.

But the diminutive harbor is still a long way from functional, crippling to a local economy dependent on the fishing industry. Tsunami victims, meanwhile, are finding little help in disaster relief, much of it in the form of reimbursements and loans they can’t afford.

Excluding the inmates who reside in Pelican Bay State Prison, Crescent City is home to about 4,200 people. The town already took a significant hit when most of the lumber mills and fish processing facilities were shuttered in the last decade, forcing hundreds to leave in search of jobs. Once home to eight lumber mills and three fish processing plants, Crescent City is down to just one of each.

“In a small community, when you lose 100 jobs, it's a big impact. Maybe five years ago, in the good ol' days, if you will, it wouldn't have been so bad,” said Bill Renfroe, executive director of Crescent City's Tri-Agency Economic Development Authority. “But today, with everybody struggling, it's a serious impact.”

Tsunami surges deposited more than 78,000 cubic yards of sediment in the inner boat basin, making it as shallow as four feet in some areas and effectively shutting out boats longer than 15 feet. The harbor is the largest Dungeness crab exporter on the West Coast. At one time, it had more than 100 fishing vessels; now there are only a handful.

Red tape and environmental requirements have slowed efforts to dredge the harbor. Last month, samples of the sand and silt were sent to the Weston Solutions laboratory in Oakland to undergo a bioassay – a scientific measurement of sediment grain size and toxicity. If the results come back clean, crews simply can dump the material offshore. If not, it will need to be excavated and trucked hundreds of miles to central Oregon, where the dense mounds can be legally disposed.

While officials await the results – expected to come back in a detailed report later this month – everyone is trying to keep things “as normal as possible,” said Crescent City Harbormaster Richard Young. More than 450 people turned out for the annual Crab, Wine & Cheese Festival in April, and the community continues to hold beach cleanups to collect debris from Japan that still washes ashore.

The permitting process for the dredging likely won’t be done before the end of August, with the goal to finish the project by Oct. 15. The deadline is imperative for fishing captains, said Young, who use the time to prepare their boats and crews for crab season, which starts Dec. 1.

“Crab season is our major fishery here. It's really fast-paced, and it's very important for us to be as ready as possible,” Young said, adding that in recent years, fishermen landed up to 80 percent of the total catch in the first two months of the season, yet another reason to get the dredging done on time.

“The fuel dock, the ice house, the gear store ... all the service facilities are still here,” Young said. “Having a place for boats to tie to by then is critical.”

Economic ripples

The focus is on dredging, but the community still is reeling and needs help on several fronts, Renfroe said. Most disaster relief aid comes through reimbursements – money that some people simply can't afford to pay up front. Many loans, meanwhile, require collateral. But for the fishermen who've lost their boats, that is practically impossible.

“Even if they are low-interest loans, all you are doing in the end is accruing debt. A lot of folks here are incapable of doing that,” Renfroe said, adding that the lesson in disaster relief is just one of many the town has had to learn on the fly. “We're sort of blazing the trail for the rest of the state and finding all these more subtle things that you must account for. We have a lot of communities watching us and talking to us.”

Renfroe also wonders where the town would be today had it taken advantage of its “15 minutes of fame” following the tsunami. Support groups like the American Red Cross and United Way won't be around to provide assistance next summer when repair work is still being done.

“The window of opportunity for things like that is somewhat narrow, and we didn't really know what to do with that,” he said. “That was a very good experience; we're learning a lot about how long it takes to do things.”

To date, the California Emergency Management Agency has allocated roughly $11 million for reimbursement once work is complete, a figure that spokesman Brad Alexander said could double by next year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover 75 percent of eligible recovery costs, and Cal EMA will reimburse 18.75 percent; Del Norte County and Crescent City will pick up the rest.

To expedite the process, Cal EMA will advance nearly $1.2 million to the harbor later this year. But the estimated $20 million for a harbor redesign – planned but never implemented after a 2006 tsunami – won't be reimbursed until later. Between the dredging and redesign projects, Alexander said it likely will be late next summer before the harbor is “back to normal.”

“It's sort of this spider web, where there's a ton of restrictions on when they can do work and when they can't,” Alexander said, adding that similar projects can take anywhere from six months to more than a year. “We essentially take a back seat until all those I's are dotted and T's are crossed. It's kind of a ball of red tape.”

Tired of waiting, many local fishermen simply have moved on to places like Fort Bragg, Monterey or Oregon's Coos Bay, taking with them money that otherwise would have stayed in Crescent City. That will compound the community’s struggles this winter, when storm conditions will halt harbor repairs.

Moving on

Despite the current difficulties, there are a few bright spots.

Tourism spiked immediately after the tsunami, as people came to view the damage and media outlets from all over the state descended upon one of the hardest-hit areas on the West Coast. Cleanup crews worked around the clock in the days following, while hundreds of people flocked to the harbor's edge to catch a glimpse of the concrete-encased chunks of plastic foam docks floating in the water. Emergency crews stayed in the area for up to six weeks, spending money at local restaurants and hotels.

The community also received a $5 million National Emergency Grant, which Renfroe described as a “make work” program. It created roughly 200 temporary painting, construction, landscaping and other jobs. The work pays between $8 and $14 an hour, critical in an area with an unemployment rate around 13 percent.

“It's cash in their pockets, and that's what is sorely needed right now,” Renfroe said. Most of the jobs last anywhere from three to six months, depending on the type of work. “It's a bridge to get us to a crab season. That's a huge deal for us.”

Temporary fixes include the delivery of 1,500 feet of wooden recreational docks from San Francisco, which will be installed later this fall. While the process has been a challenge, harbormaster Young said he is optimistic that the harbor and, in turn, the city will recover fully.

“It's going to be a slow year for some people,” Young said. “But I think we're going to end up with a more stout harbor, and one that is a lot more resistant than we knew before.”

This story was edited by Denise Zapata. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick.

California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team, is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. You can contact the writer at